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Breakdowns, storms, and protests: One year of ferry disruption across the Western Isles

After another year of painful waiting, Transport Scotland says "up to three new major vessels" are coming in 2024.

Robbie Drummond, managing director of CalMac pictured in Largs.
Robbie Drummond, chief executive of CalMac. Image: Andrew Cawley.

It would be nearly impossible to list every ferry cancellation and breakdown that the Western Isles has seen in the last year.

As 2023 ends, yet another year has gone by without the islands receiving their much-promised new ferries.

Without them, CalMac’s lifeline services are reliant on an ageing fleet plagued by breakdowns.

Throughout the year, islanders have faced blow after blow to their plans, communities, and economies. These are just some of them.

A shaky start to 2023

Even before breakdowns, Western Isles residents began the year with disruption to their ferry services.

The scheduled closure of Uig harbour, starting in January, turned the timetable of the Lochmaddy ferry terminal on its head.

Travellers had to leave Lochmaddy at 5:30am. This was a significant blow to businesses, such as arts centre Taigh Chearsabhagh, which relies in part on people passing through on their way to catch ferries.

The disruption that the North Uist ferry route has faced in recent years was highlighted in February.

It was found that CalMac had to pay almost £500,000 in fines due to poor performance on the route in the previous year — a 350% increase on 2020/21.

Spring and Summer struggles

In April, CalMac’s largest ferry, the MV Loch Seaforth, was taken out of service due to a faulty engine control system.

As well as causing disruption to the Ullapool-Stornoway route, the breakdown highlighted that even relatively ‘young’ ferries can be hit by problems.

The Loch Seaforth was launched in 2014.

MV Loch Seaforth. Photo: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

In contrast, it was one of CalMac’s oldest vessels that was the centre of a controversy in June.

The MV Lord of the Isles was called in to cover Islay during the MV Finlaggan’s overdue service.

This left Lochboisdale without ferries to and from the mainland for almost all of June – one of Uist’s busiest tourist months.

In protest, islanders took to the streets in both Lochboisdale and Glasgow to call for a better ferry service for Western Isles communities.

A stormy end to a difficult year

Uist and Lewis and Harris are connected by the MV Loch Portain, which sails the Berneray-Leverburgh route.

In October, engine issues left it unable to sail in bad weather – a major flaw for a vessel supposed to travel across the Sound of Harris in the stormy Hebridean winter.

CalMac deployed the MV Loch Bhrusda to cover the route. Unfortunately, this replacement ferry broke down itself days into the job.

Both the Loch Portain and the Loch Bhrusda are over two decades old.

MV Loch Portain.

CalMac engineers were only able to fix Loch Portain’s engine issues by late December. The vessels’ fragility had added yet more doubt to a holiday season characterised by stormy weather and urgent warnings.

In Uist, CalMac warned islanders of their potential last opportunity to travel before Christmas less than a day in advance.

Looking ahead to 2024

What will the New Year have in store for Western Isles ferry services?

If Transport Scotland’s plans work out, the answer to that might be a simple one: new ferries.

Ferguson Marine announced this month that two new ferries, the Glen Sannox and the Glen Rosa, are facing another two months’ delay.

Despite that, the Scottish Government is still confident they will be launched in 2024.

“Within 2024-25 we expect to see delivery of up to three new major vessels and completion of port work across the network,” a Transport Scotland spokesperson says.

The coming year’s budget includes “£434 million for services and ongoing investment in vessels and infrastructure”.

New ferries to ‘build capacity and resilience’ in 2024, says CalMac chief

“As 2023 draws to a close we are reflecting on the year that has passed,” says CalMac’s chief executive Robbie Drummond.

CalMac has “worked hard to minimise disruption on the network”, he says. “We have invested a record amount into our annual overhaul programme, ensuring our fleet is as robust as possible.”

2024 will see CalMac “continue to work in partnership with local stakeholders and communities”, he says.

He says new vessels will “build capacity and resilience” across the Western Isles ferry network.

CalMac staff “are all committed about delivering the best possible service next year and beyond”.

More local reporting from the Western Isles: